A Life of One’s Own

Michael Downing’s new novel recounts how one woman reclaims her world
The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua
The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua plays a key role in awakening the protagonist’s spirit in “The Chapel.” Photo: Richard Whitfield via Flickr
July 22, 2015

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Feeling at home in the world is not always easy. That’s what Elizabeth Berman discovers as she deals with her husband’s death in The Chapel (Counterpoint Press), the latest novel by Michael Downing, a lecturer in the Department of English.

Cajoled by her children, she reluctantly leaves the safety of her quiet life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a guided tour of Italy that she had originally planned with her husband, a Dante scholar.

Despite her best efforts, she cannot escape her tour group and get back home to her comfortable stasis. Instead, Elizabeth’s Italian travels move her along like a leaf in the wind. It is a journey of “unawareness,” Downing says, which seems to be leading nowhere, but is actually guiding her back to her place in the world.

“Writing the novel, I became fascinated by the feeling of disappointment—getting to a point where you have invested a lot in a marriage, a family or a career that has not been exactly unrewarding, but overall has not left you happy,” says Downing, the author of five novels, including the national bestseller Perfect Agreement, and three nonfiction books, including Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time.

“The one thing I love about Elizabeth Berman is that so many of her characteristics are things people don’t admire—things like indecisiveness, uncertainty and an inability to feel at home in the world,” Downing says. “But these are things I appreciate in other people.”

Michael DowningItaly itself is a carefully drawn character in the novel. It represents life and discovery—an environment of emotional opening.

“Part of Elizabeth’s conversion is coming to understand that delight and happiness coexist with tragic histories, and that sadness can exist in the same moment with the perfect drink in the perfect piazza with the perfect sunset,” Downing says.

Elizabeth’s deeper revelations begin when her tour takes her to Padua and the Scrovegni Chapel—hence the name of the novel. The chapel walls are covered with a fresco cycle by the painter Giotto depicting the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, considered by many to be one of the most important masterpieces of Western art. The paintings unlock an important door for Elizabeth.

“What is so moving about all of Giotto’s paintings is his understanding that there is a simple human story at the core of these historical or scriptural events—that they are important because they are human stories,” Downing says. When Elizabeth sees Giotto’s Massacre of the Innocents, which tells the story of Herod’s slaughter of all the male infants in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus, she is struck by the painter’s focus on the mothers’ anguish. At that moment, her perspective begins to change, says Downing.

He knows the feeling. He well remembers the first Giotto he ever saw, The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, with its realistic human figures, with heavy heads and flabby arms. “You can actually get close enough to see the worry on everyone’s face, and their uncertainty about what this moment means for the future,” he says. The realization of that humanity changed Downing, much as it does his character Elizabeth.

Elizabeth ultimately meets a mysterious man known only as T, who convinces her that they should travel Italy together; he simply calls her E. “I liked having two people whose way of recognizing each other in the world is evidenced by a kind of shorthand that they immediately adopt with one another,” Downing says.

Their time together echoes Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which Dante passes through hell, purgatory and finally paradise before he can go home, says Downing. “The most interesting thing about Dante’s comedy for me is the unintentionality that launches Dante on the journey—that he gets lost,” says Downing. “Elizabeth and T are forced out of their lives by their unhappiness, and are lost and need each other to find a path home.”

In the end, Downing does send Elizabeth home to Massachusetts, no more certain about her direction, but realizing that she does, in fact, have a future.

“I wanted to write a novel that turned out to be a comedy in the classic sense of reclaiming the possibility of happiness,” Downing says.

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.

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